In preparation for the new season of National Geographic's Brain Games, their producers asked me to participate in a virtual roundtable around this thought-provoking question:
"Do you think individuals can train their brain to respond in a particular way to certain situations, or do you think our brain's innate "startle response" is too hardwired to alter?"
My short answer: Yes, we can train our brains.
My long answer: Not only we can, but we SHOULD train our brains to respond in particular ways to certain situations. That's why we have a human brain to begin with...
At the core, the question above goes back to the old "Nature vs. nurture" debate. It's pretty clear by now that both matter. As the growing field of epigenetics has shown, genes and lifestyles interact with each other.
The idea that we are genetically "hardwired" for many behaviors is deeply misleading. Yes, we are born with many predispositions, but how those are expressed depend on our lifelong experiences, thoughts, feelings and decisions. We are ALWAYS training our brains, for good or for bad.
The range of possibility--while certainly not unlimited--is much larger than previously thought. The new fundamental understanding is "cells that fire together wire together." The brain never stops changing through learning (this is called "brain plasticity"). And the brain, and the mind that emerges from it, is of course the driver of behavior.
The Brain Games TV program explores multiple examples of how learning changes your brain, such as what happens to the brains of taxi drivers, musicians and experienced meditators...including how brain training can take over the innate "startle response" and others.
Why does this matter? Why SHOULD we figure out ways to better train our brains and harness our human potential?
Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit Oslo's Nobel Peace Center. Exposed to so many inspiring stories by Prize Winners, it struck me what a beautiful example they provide of our power to transcend our genes and even our "memes" (cultural and environmental influences, as coined by biologist Richard Dawkins).
See this powerful paragraph by Dawkins, in his influential book The Selfish Gene:
"The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight-our capacity to simulate the future in imagination- could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term ones...We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism-something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machine and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."
Please notice these fragments...
-- "conscious foresight-our capacity to simulate the future in imagination
-- "our "mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term ones"
-- "ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism"
What if we can train and expand that "mental equipment"? What if we are witnessing the birth of a new "brain fitness" culture and toolkit, combining old meditative and cognitive techniques with new digital platforms, to help us improve imagination, working memory, emotional self-regulation, altruism, and more?
Shouldn't we find ways to adopt them, in our schools, our workplaces, our lives, and become better and happier human beings?
In my mind, that's the real brain game. To find ways to harness our brain's lifelong neurogenesis (creation of new neurons) and neuroplasticity (how the brain changes itself responding to experience) to lead happier, fuller lives.
Alvaro Fernandez is the co-author of The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Improve Brain Health and Performance at Any Age. SharpBrains.com is a popular website tracking the latest information on brain plasticity and brain fitness, combined with tips, brain teasers and brain games to help adults improve concentration and memory.